Penguins in Tel Aviv? It Must Be the Annual Open-Source Convention

by Ostatic Staff - Aug. 01, 2008

Israel, where I live, is known for its large number of high-tech startups. But when I moved here in 1995, Linux and the idea of open source software was virtually unknown, even among programmers. It was thus a delight to spend this (Friday) morning with 250-300 other open-source advocates, at the annual "August Penguin" conference -- and to see several dozen hands go up when a conference organizer asked how many people worked at a job that allowed them to work with open-source software.

This was the seventh August Penguin conference, sponsored by the Israeli open-source advocacy group, HaMakor ("the source"), and co-sponsored by a number of other organizations, ranging from the Israeli branch of the Internet Society, to small companies servicing the open-source sector, to Microsoft.

Yes, you read that right: Microsoft was a major sponsor of the conference, and its logo appeared prominently on the conference program, as well as on the T-shirts that were distributed to each attendee. There was even a very well-attended session at which a Microsoft manager (Amir Shevat) tried to convince the crowd that the war is over, and that it's worth trying to find ways in which Microsoft and the open-source community can work together.

In particular, Shevat said that just as Sun and Oracle have found ways to work together with Microsoft in some ways, while competing bitterly in others, so too must the open-source community find ways to cooperate when possible. His talk was repeatedly interrupted by hostile comments and criticism, some of which (e.g., the fact that a Silverlight plugin is available for Firefox on Linux) were easily dismissed, and others (e.g., the ways in which Microsoft pushed a shoddy specification through the ISO for OOXML) were never satisfactorily answered. The talk ended on a sour note, as Shevat ran out of time, the audience's comments were not completely answered, and the questions of whether and how the open-source community can work with Microsoft were not seriously discussed.

A major issue among Israeli computer users, and which impedes the more general adoption of open-source software among Israelis, is the lack of good bidirectional ("bidi") writing support in many applications. Shoshana Forbes, who has worked for several years to translate in Hebrew, described some of the challenges associated with bidi applications. A local Israeli blogging platform, "Blogli" ("blog for me"), gave a non-technical talk that described how they set up their platform, and how they interact with the larger WordPress and WordPress-MU community. Still another talk discussed the challenges associated with OCR for Hebrew, and work that has been done on the "hocr" project to advance that technology.

Like any good conference, much of the action at the August Penguin took place in the lobby, outside of the two lecture halls. Along from the annual open-source developer conferences that have taken place over the last few years, August Penguin is one of the year's major gatherings for open-source users in Israel -- and the fact that August Penguin takes place on a Friday morning, which marks the beginning of the Israeli weekend, meant that many people with jobs outside of the open-source world were able to attend.

I came away from this year's August Penguin with a sense that while open source is still something of a strange concept for many Israelis, it is becoming increasingly mainstream -- and that there is a large and growing community of users. The key to open source is a strong community, and the community is getting stronger every year.